Neang Kavich packed up his belongings and loaded them onto the moving truck before saying goodbye forever to the home where he spent his childhood, knowing that it would soon be no more than a memory.
Everyone called the White Building a slum because of its notorious reputation for prostitution and drugs starting in the 1990’s, but Kavich had always called it his home.
“I have a lot of good memories of the White Building. The thing I remember the most just off the top of my head is playing in the corridors there with my friends,” says Kavich.
His home may have been a slum but it was also a building populated by an unusually large number of talented artists. His father was a sculptor and his father’s friends were all artists of one sort or another, whether it was painting or playing music.
Later on the building began to change or maybe Kavich just began to notice the things he’d overlooked as a child, but to him it seemed like over time there were more prostitutes, drug addicts and thieves and fewer artists.
“[Back in 2017] some of my friends had already moved but I felt like all of my memories were trapped inside the White Building somehow and once it was certain that the building was going to be demolished I had to ask myself deep inside what the White Building meant to me and what ‘home’ even meant to me,” he says.
The White Building – demolished in the name of urban revitalization in 2017 – was built during the final years of Cambodia’s brief 20th century “golden age” period of cultural awakening after it gained independence from France and before decades of war and misery overtook the Kingdom.
Originally dubbed with the generic name “Municipal Apartments” – for the 468 apartments inside, along with stores and offices – the building was situated on Samdech Sothearos Blvd near the famed Khmer architect Van Molyvann’s Grey Building. Thus – given its white exterior – the name White Building probably just made sense.
It was accidentally damaged by the Khmer Rouge during their evacuation of Phnom Penh but it became home to hundreds of families after that regime fell in 1979 and urban life began again anew in the capital.
Like many of the former residents of the White Building, Kavich and his family were heartbroken by its destruction and still miss the community that existed there despite all of the poverty.
“My family hired a truck to transport all of our belongings to a new house. For a while we stood there outside looking at the building but then it started raining and we knew it was time to go. Everyone was overcome with emotion as we pulled away in the truck because we knew that we were leaving our home forever,” he says.
Kavich turned his memories of life in the White Building into a feature-length film with a plot focused on a young man and his dreams of artistic success – dreams just like Kavich’s – which seem to be coming true for him now in real life.
“When I heard that the White Building would be demolished I was very sad thinking about my childhood memories, my friends, the places that I had played. As a filmmaker, I wanted to capture those feelings and that atmosphere and to record all of my memories and put it into a feature film,” Kavich, 34, tells The Post.
Kavich admits that as a child he was often embarrassed to tell people where he lived and was sometimes made fun of or looked down upon by people who considered the White Building to be nothing more than a slum, brothel and den of drugs.
As Kavich grew up and gained more knowledge he understood the value of the White Building and how it was historic and how the artistic community there really was special and unique.
“Telling my friends – especially foreigners – that I was living in the White Building didn’t embarrass me once some of them began to show their appreciation for what it meant, particularly people who were visiting Cambodia for the first time.
“Take a look at other buildings and you can see that they don’t have that something special like the White Building did. I value our history and the building was designed by Cambodian architects and inside it had a long history of Cambodian artists and performers who lived there,” Kavich says.
Kavich didn’t grow up wanting to be a filmmaker but it eventually became his obsession in the years after he finished high school. He was learning dance and music at Cambodian Living Arts which had a studio for recording songs along with some video editing equipment.
He started out recording sounds and making videos then editing them together, but his initial inspiration was documentary films rather than fictional narratives.
“I started making documentaries and I got to take part in festival events abroad and that was amazing. But then I started thinking of doing a fictional movie with a story and I knew right away that it would have to be about the White Building,” said Kavich.
His film White Building – selected as the Cambodian entry in the category of Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards – portrays the life of 20-year-old Samnang and two of his friends who all live in the eponymous tenement.
The characters in the film share the common dream of becoming hip-hop dance stars and every evening they ride their motorbikes out to beer gardens or discotheques where they can dance and earn a living.
“One day one of Samnang’s friends informs him that he’s managed to find a way to leave the country and go overseas and it makes Samnang frustrated and filled with despair because he thinks that his dream is dying and that he’s being left behind,” says Kavich.
Samnang is a fictional character, but Kavich says he’s written about him based on his experiences and the experiences of friends who had very strict parents who didn’t approve of the dreams they wanted to pursue.
Earlier this year White Building was selected for the 78th annual Venice Film Festival – the longest running film festival in the world and one of the most prestigious. Not only that, but the actor who portrayed Samnang – Chhun Piseth – won the festival’s Orizzonti Award for Best Actor.
Piseth’s best actor Orizzonti is the biggest international acting award ever won by a Cambodian aside from Haing S Nor’s Best Supporting Actor win at the Academy Awards for The Killing Fields.
Piseth was unable to attend the ceremony in person so Kavich – as the producer, director and screenwriter – stepped onto the stage to accept the award on his behalf.
“I was very excited for [Piseth] but honestly also for myself and for everyone who worked on the movie. It’s such a big achievement and making a movie is a team effort so it was an award that not only reflected his incredible performance but it also reflected all of the teamwork between all of the actors and the technical crew and the producers,” Kavich tells The Post.
Kavich says that as the film’s producer from the very beginning when he started work on it he had high hopes for its success but he didn’t really expect that it would be selected for the Venice festival and he certainly didn’t expect it would win one of the festival’s top awards.
With his film career only just beginning, Kavich already has more projects in the works and exciting new opportunities resulting from White Building’s success at the Venice film festival. That includes the possibility that White Building could make it to the shortlist of nominees in the Best International Film category for the upcoming Oscar’s in 2022.
“When Piseth won the best actor award, for me, it meant that even though we come from the developing world that doesn’t matter. It changed our mindset and encouraged us to do more and to think bigger,” Kavich says.
After all if it’s possible that someone who grew up in a notorious “slum” – only to be evicted and see it destroyed in the name of progress – can then go and make a movie about it that gets shown at the biggest film festivals in the world while winning awards?
“Then really anything is possible! Anything is possible but only if you go out there and try,” says Kavich.